‘Steam Days in Dunsmuir’ a big hit on National Train Day

Richard DuPertuis
Bob Church, right, signs his new book "Steam Days in Dunsmuir" in the Dunsmuir Depot museum on National Train Day Saturday. Sitting beside him was contributor Don Olsen, who was also asked to sign his photographs in the book. Standing, left to right, Fred Koschnick, Don Plageman, and the wax likeness of the late Dick Murdock, the words of whose entire work "Smoke in the Canyon" are included in Church's book.

When Robert J. Church was 15 years old, he asked his dad to stop in Dunsmuir on the way home from Portland so that he could see the trains. He had made this request in many times in the past, and they made a stop in our historic railroad town a regular family activity while homebound for Sacramento, but on this particular day something was new.

“I had my first camera,” he said in the Dunsmuir Depot museum Saturday. “It was an old Brownie with a wind knob.” He paged through a book lying open on the table until he came a old black and white of steam locomotive and cars he shot in the mid-1950's yard, and mused, “Unbeknownst to me, that was right at the end of the steam engines.”

Church went on to shoot lots more photos of trains, and to print them in meticulously detailed books that over the years attracted a large following of railroad enthusiasts. Saturday, National Train Day, dozens of them flocked to Dunsmuir train station to meet the celebrated author, and to buy an autographed copy of his latest work, “Steam Days in Dunsmuir.”

“Bob writes the best books out there,” said train buff Dave Maffei. He said that we was a contributor to “Steam Days,” as well, and pointed proudly to a black and white enlargement of steam engine on display behind the counter. “I found this in the hunting grounds of eBay,” he explained. “It was listed as railroad photo, location unknown.”

He recognized structures in the background. “I've seen other old photos of Dunsmuir, and I recognized this white fence,” he said. He was also able to identify an old, long-gone loading dock in the photo as a lost part of the Dunsmuir yard. “I gave it to the book because I love the town, and I love the history,” he said.

Maffei's eye for details and the love for them is characteristic of this special breed of hobbyist so intensely interested in trains. Weed resident Dave Scott, part of the crowd overflowing the tiny museum onto the asphalt outside, swooped his hand in grand gesture toward the yard. “I'm modeling this whole area,” he announced proudly.

Scott said that he was working on his layout at his home, with help by two or three enthusiasts in the community. “We're all railroad modelers,” he said of the crowd in general. “We each have one or two Yahoo groups to keep in touch.”

They found out about this day's event through their network, as well as from the Dunsmuir Railroad Depot Historical Society publicizing National Train Day. The day itself, commemorating the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 that joined the east and west railroads, was not the draw for all these people.

Up from the Bay Area, Bob Plageman declared, “I'm getting Bob Church's book.”

Agreed Scott, “We all knew Bob Church would be here.”

 Inside, the esteemed author sat at a small table signed, one after another, copies of his book brought to him by a line of dedicated followers. Beside him was former Southern Pacific fireman Don Olsen. “I worked up here in '47 or '48, but I haven't been up here for a long time,” said Olsen. He, too, was asked to pick up a pen from time to time, to sign photos he had contributed.

Another contributor, the late, great Dick Murdock, was present in spirit, and almost in body. “It's strange looking up and seeing Dick there,” said Church. He was looking at a wax likeness of the legendary railroad author standing behind the table. Murdock had been modeled for exhibit in the Fisherman's Wharf wax museum in San Francisco. The figure was moved after Murdock's passing in 2004.

Said Maffei, “Dick wanted it to be in Dunsmuir, where he had fond memories of working for the railroad.”

Church said that “Steam Days in Dunsmuir” included all of Murdock's “Smoke in the Canyon,” minus the pictures. “That took it down to about 45 pages,” he said. For his part, he added, “I interviewed people working here. And modelers.” The new hardback boasts 264 pages, filled with more than 400 pictures.

“A lot of those had never been published,” he said.

Church, now nearing retirement, chose a career in dentistry, but he shared a story that revealed some measure of regret for this life decision. About 25 years ago, he ran his first train as a student fireman. “It was an excursion train, a six-mile tourist run out of Sacramento,” he recalled “I eased the throttle gently,” he cautioned. “You don't want to spin the drivers.”

A wistful smile creased his face. “I would never had bet I'd get a chance to run a steam engine like that,” he said. “If I had been born about ten years earlier, I would not have gone to college. I would have gone to work for the railroad.”

A rail-enthused crowd packs the tiny Dunsmuir Depot Museum Saturday to meet esteemed train author Robert J. Church and to buy an autographed copy his new book, "Steam Days in Dunsmuir." The event lasted hours, during which time Church emptied several sixteen-book boxes, and put smiles on the faces of dozens of admirers, who drove in from as far away as the Bay Area to visit our historic railroad town.